Software-defined networking (SDN) receives plenty of hype. Now, the OpenDaylight project -- backed by big vendors like Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO), IBM (NYSE:IBM), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and VMware (NYSE:VMW) -- hopes to turn all that SDN noise into real market innovation. The potential winners: software developers, channel partners and customers. Still, OpenDaylight raises as many questions as it answers. Here's why.

SDN decouples control from network hardware. The result could be easier-to-manage networks built on lower-cost hardware. But dozens of vendors claim to have SDN solutions, and each is slightly different from the other. That chaos threatens to stall overall market innovation, partner training and customer adoption.

Enter OpenDaylight. Backed by The Linux Foundation, OpenDaylight is a "community-led and industry-supported open source framework that will accelerate adoption, foster new innovation and create a more open and transparent approach to Software-Defined Networking (SDN)."

Key backers include Big Switch Networks, Brocade, Cisco, Citrix, Ericsson, IBM, Juniper Networks, Microsoft, NEC, Red Hat and VMware. The stated goal: Developing a "common and open SDN platform for developers to utilize, contribute to and build commercial products and technologies upon." 

So what are the opportunities and challenges facing this open source initiative?

  • The OpenDaylight Project includes technology companies that compete fiercely with one another. And each of those companies wants a leg up against the competition in the SDN market.
  • But SDN market is tiny at the moment -- generating less than $200 million in annual sales, according to IDC. So the technology companies have a common need to work together and grow the market.
  • Plus, The Linux Foundation could provide the vendor-neutral glue to keep this project focused on the right priorities.

Think of it this way: Through common standards like Ethernet, TCP/IP and HTML, scores of hardware and software markets were able to interact with one another and spark new industry innovations. In theory, the OpenDaylight Project will achieve similar goals for the SDN industry.

Ideally, SDN will allow "speedy delivery of new cloud, big data, social business and mobile services." The first code from the project is expected to be released in 3Q13. Expected donations and projects include an open controller, a virtual overlay network, protocol plug-ins and switch device enhancements, the group says.

For channel partners, OpenDaylight is an effort worth watching. But chances are it will be years before project innovations directly benefit VARs and IT service providers. Instead, keep an eye on existing channel partner programs for potential SDN stepping stones. For instance, VMware's software-defined datacenter push hinges on vCloud Suite for VARs and partners.

Bottom line: Vendors will continue their individual SDN initiatives, while also hoping OpenDaylight somehow sparks a broader industry revolution...